Here’s how the speech ended, as you may remember:Although Thomas Paine is the person who coined the phrase "United States of America" and convinced the colonists to declare their independence, with the Declaration of Independence itself reading as a distilled version of the argument Paine gave in Common Sense; and it being his war propaganda in the American Crisis that gave the colonists the spirit to keep fighting at a time when it was thought that all was lost, he still remains something of a forgotten Founder. And as Hitchens observes, it's hard not to suspect that Paine's place in history has been denied because of his deistic attacks on organized religion and Biblical superstition (and probably to a slightly lesser extent his participation in the French revolution.)So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words to be read to the people: “Let it be told to the future world . . . that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive . . . that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet it.”Slightly boilerplate stuff in a way: national unity; Valley Forge; the darkest hour just before dawn—it took a while for it to sink in. Yet after all, as far as I know, there was only one occasion when General Washington ordered anything to be read aloud. And that was to the troops (not “the people,” if we are to be fussy). And the words that he ordered to be read were the imperishable words of The Crisis, by Thomas Paine, from which, indeed, the above words are taken. (They are not as lapidary as the opening “These are the times that try men’s souls,” but still. . . .)
So here is an apparently encouraging sign. The new president, having rather spoiled his first day in office by inviting the grotesque figure of Rick Warren, that bulbous religious entrepreneur, to give the invocation, redeems himself by citing the author of not just The Rights of Man but The Age of Reason. Except that he doesn’t quite “cite” Paine. He masks the quotation by making it seem, without exactly saying so, that he is referring us to the altogether “safe” authority of George Washington. The word crisis can be used in lower case, but the name of Paine himself cannot.
An inaugural poem of protest by Robert Pinsky
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